November 8, 2018

 

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Holly and I have returned home. I am currently sitting on our familiar couch in our unchanged lounge room, eating an apple and writing this post. It is six thirty in the morning before my first day back at work. But rather than talk about that I’d like to talk about Slovakia and the final leg of our trip. A leg filled with incredible natural beauty, increasingly more rest days, and a journey over a mountain.

Let’s begin.

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While most of our travels had been meticulously researched, planned, and booked many months ago by the Lady Holly, the final leg was not. The final leg was going to be spontaneous, we would be spontaneous, we knew we would because we had pencilled it in to our diaries. Because that’s how spontaneity works, you plan it. The original idea was that close to the date we would go on skyscanner, look at the cheapest flights out of Vienna, book one, then leave the next day. Except, as you may have gathered, we’re not all that good at spontaneity and so during our time in Germany we cracked and booked some things. I’m glad we did.

What we booked was a number of trains leaving from Vienna, making their way through Slovakia, before getting a bus down to Budapest in Hungary. From the start we knew we liked Slovakia, mostly because their train network was so incredibly cheap we even decided to bump ourselves up to first class, which cost a dollar or so more. We also booked in our accomodation for this leg, granting ourselves seven days at our first location; the longest time we would have spent anywhere for the last couple of months. It was exciting, mostly because we didn’t really know what to expect. We knew we wanted to see more mountains, and that we wanted to rest more–as our months of being on the move were starting to wear us down–and Slovakia seemed to hit both of those notes; being both mountainous and quieter than some places. But that was it. Beyond that it was a mystery. One that would prove to have many treasures hidden within it.

Our first stop was Štrba, located at the base of the Upper Tatra mountains. Our accomodation wasn’t in Štrba proper, but a smaller village a short distance away called Tatranská Štrba. To call it sleepy would be appropriate; almost deserted, even more so. Our apartment was in a large complex, with views overlooking the Tatras. Across from it was a hotel which featured a “mini zoo”, with animals ranging from peacocks to goats–with nothing in between, as they just had peacocks and goats. Calling it a zoo might be a bit rich but it was a welcome delight nonetheless. The apartment was excessively affordable, well under budget compared to most of our other stays, and yet was the nicest, most lavish, accommodation we’d had the whole trip. It featured an enormous balcony with exceptional views, a very blinged up kitchen, with purple LED lights under the bench and an incredible coffee machine, two bathrooms, one of which had a large bath and mood lighting, and one of the best beds we’d slept in the whole trip. We played it cool as the host showed us around and explained how everything worked, but then broke into giddy giggles as soon as she waved goodbye. We would have seven days here and the place was paradise. And remember how I said the town was almost deserted? Well that went double for our apartment complex. Despite having four levels of apartments, we didn’t see a single soul the whole time we were there. Not once did we pass someone in the hall or share an elevator ride. Never did we catch anyone entering or leaving their apartment or have to hold the door for someone. We did hear noises though, and occasionally voices. Obviously ghosts, which just made us even more excited to stay there. Back to the town for a second, while it may have been deserted it was also gorgeous. Alpine and lush and rich with autumn colours, blue skies filled with sun shone down on us as we walked it’s quiet streets and took in the impressive natural scenery. And overlooking it all was the Tatras. On that first day we looked up at those mountains, keen to cross their craggy peaks.

Day one was rest day/buy groceries day/get all giddy about our killer accomodation day. Day two was our first journey up towards the mountain. We took a cute little train twenty minutes to its base where another tiny town sat, Štrbské Pleso. This town was larger, but again somewhat deserted, we assume due to it being off peak. While the weather was perfect for walking, the locals, we take it, are more interested in their winter sports, which is when the two towns would really fill up. This was a reconnaissance mission for us as we knew the next day we would get up early and return to do an epic sixteen kilometer walk over the mountain. Which brings us to day three.

The alarm went off at five, we packed bags, made a lunch, and were on the tiny train by six am, and back at the base of the mountain and walking by six thirty. The walk started through a fairytale forest, rocks and staircases of twisting roots lined the path, all shadowed by the centuries old trees reaching up around us. If Hansel and Gretel had skipped on through there it would have been little suprise. As we climbed the terrain changed, the forest making way for grasslands. The sun had yet to break the mountain peaks so we walked in shadow as we made our way up. The landscape began sparser still, grassland changing to rock. We saw a small waterfall leading into the stream we had been following and were surprised to see the track led up beside it. Right up in fact, as chains had been installed for us to climb with. We secured our backpacks and made it to the top of the mountain right as the sun broke free to shine down on us. It was perfect. It also wasn’t the top.

From our new platao we could see we still had much further to go. So on we went. We passed blissful pools of water, stark blue against the mountains grey. And on we went. We traversed over a field of rocks, boulders resting against boulders as far as we could see, the yellow markers revealing a path through them like we were adventurers in a video game. And on we went. We headed up, our legs starting to weary as they took high steps up a rocky staircase on the edge of a cliff face. And on we went. We scrambled over another false top–incredibly high now but not quite at the peak–and found an even larger pool, this one partly iced over and as reflective as a mirror. And on we went. We passed onto more rocks, these ones more uneven, the trail curving and hard to keep a track of. And on we went. Into snow, which hid the path even more, climbing more than walking now as we saw what we thought must be the top, but refused to believe the mountain after all its false promises. And on we went, until we got to a peak, a sharp ridge with an insane incline that we would have to climb over. More chains had been installed, and cold and exhilarated and more than a little tired, we pulled our bodies over the mountain.

Then there was the matter of getting down. The other side of the ridge proved just as steep as the side we had just traversed, but now we were going down, with gravity a little too keen to assist us. Falling was a very real risk, not helped by pebbly rubble beneath our feet. All of this combined caused Holly’s vertigo to kick in and panic to flare. She seized up, teared up, and for a moment thought she wouldn’t be able to do it. I knew she could. I know she can beat most mountains. I took her bag, she took some deep breaths, and with me speaking words of encouragement she took a shaky step down. Then another. And another. Until we were past the worst, and, while still far from flat, were on more solid ground. And on we went.

Our legs were past weary, past tired, and into angry and sore by the time we made it down and across to our end point, the top of the chairlift. Here was situated a beer house, because of course there was, this is Europe, and so we sat and drank and rested our legs.

The day, while tiring, had been one of extreme and rewarding experiences. We had climbed over a mountain and seen various shades of its beauty along the way. It was a day worth doing, worth remembering, and worth writing about.

Next time I’ll tell you what we did next.

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Talk soon,

Damian

 

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October 19, 2018

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When last we spoke I was singing the praises of beautiful Mostar, sharing photos of yours truly smiling behind a giant platter of food, and spinning thoughts on war and kindness.

Let’s get back into it, shall we?

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We left Mostar by bus. A risky venture after the questionable success of the last one, and a risk we quickly paid for. We were heading back to Split in Croatia for a second night, and I was looking forward to seeing the city’s sun dabbled shore and discovering more of what hid behind it’s white stone foundations. But I would have to wait somewhat, as about half way through our four hour drive, our bus inexplicably pulled over onto the side of the road, where it would stay for the next two hours. I say inexplicably mostly because I don’t speak Croatian. Neither does Holly, funnily enough, and so we were both left scratching our heads as the driver took the bus in and out of park while slamming on the brake pedal and calling out in Croatian. We managed to get the gist of it; the bus was broken, something to do with the brakes, and we wouldn’t be going anywhere for awhile. We weren’t too bothered, we didn’t have a schedule to keep, we had snacks in our bags (always have travel snacks), the view from our breakdown spot was incredibly beautiful, and our kindles were charged and full of books. Even if a replacement bus didn’t come for the next day, we’d be fine. Some of our fellow passengers, however, weren’t so lucky. Two ladies, not travelling together, both started…how to put it?…freaking out. They had planes to catch and had not budgeted in time for their bus to break down on the side of a highway. One of the other passengers, a middle aged woman who clearly liked to take charge in situations she shouldn’t be taking charge of, marched down the bus and told them it was alright, she had a solution. They would pray. My eyebrows rose at hearing this, but rose higher when one of the women agreed. The other one responded more akin to my own thoughts, “or we could call for a replacement bus.” They ended up doing both. Not that either woman would see the replacement bus. They managed to score themselves a lift from a passing good Samaritan. Divine intervention? We’ll never know.

Split, as suggested earlier, is a coastal town, as much of Croatia is. Old world Mediterranean architecture rubs shoulders with startling blue ocean water, and holds port to a large number of skiffs, sail boats, and cruise ships. The center of Split is Diocletian’s Palace, an ancient roman building that more resembles a large fortress that a traditional palace. It was built at the turn of the fourth century AD, and has had quite a history since that time, with many conquerors moving in and out as the years passed. Today it is home to the city’s interior with twisting passage ways and shopfronts sprawling out from it like ink leaking through water. Rich white buildings and pillars, courtyards and underground passages, are now home to shops and cafes, gorgeous places to sit and drink a cup of strong coffee, or browse the many delicious food options available. I was very taken with it, but we didn’t have too much time to explore because, on a whim, we had booked ourselves on a sunset cruise.

With the sun setting we drank beer, ate canapes, and listened to music from the boats resident band. We felt fancy and exhilarated, and, later, drunk; having taken advantage of the endless alcohol a little too hard. Still, it was a beautiful night, spent beside my favourite person. Split had impressed, leaving us with the vow to hopefully return one day and see what else Croatia had to offer.

 

Next it was onto Prague, aka, my new all-time favourite city. I don’t say that lightly either, by the way. I’ve been lucky enough to visit many amazing cities in the past three months, but Prague…Prague was something else.

Part of it was the history, which is long, and terrible, and fascinating. Part of it is the beer, which is hoppy, and varied, and delicious. Part of it was the chimney cakes, which, well, look them up and you’ll see. But mostly it was the grandness of the city itself. The way every turn of every corner found some new architectural delight. How the streetlamps glowed. How the cobbles gleamed against their light. How if I squinted my eyes only a little I could swear I had walked into a city of wood and stone previously only found in the high fantasy books I grew up on. That was the most thrilling part of it all. When I read those books and heard about these grand old cities full of towers and turrets, ale and aged meats, manors and magic, I dreamed of walking through their streets. I thought this was only possible in the pages of books written by imaginative women and men, but in Prague, I lived this dream. The book obsessed teenager in me rippled to the surface and practically squealed as he walked across Charles Bridge, grinned madly at the aged Gothic statues dotting its surface, and took photo after photo of the sprawling, magisterial castle that overlooked it all. I’ve been lucky enough to have visited a number of medieval cities in my time, but none of them came close to living my fantasy the way Prague did.

I liked it, in case that wasn’t clear.

I immediately messaged Brother Jonathan, who had already been here himself, to madly share my gushing of the fact that I was in a city from the books we loved so much. I don’t remember his response but no doubt it was more subdued than the drunk-on-happiness text I’d sent him.

The next day we were already penciled in to do a walking tour of the city, needless to say I was very excited. The tour was ran by an affable North American man who had also come to the city because of love, both of the city and his now wife who was born in a town not far from Prague. This love of his (for the city, not his wife) was infectious and if I hadn’t already been spellbound by Prague at the start of his tour I would have been by the end.

From there there’s not too much more to say. We spent the rest of that day exploring it as best we could in our given time, grazing our way through as much food and drink as our stomachs would allow, and repeatedly declaring that next time we came back to Europe we would see more of Prague and more of the Czech Republic. I have no doubt it still has other hidden treasures to discover.

 

The magic of travel is that I get to visit worlds unknown to me. Yes, they may be my world, they may be the planet I’m already familiar with, but until I rocked my way over Croatia’s water, and strolled through Prague’s impressive streets, they didn’t exist to me. Not really.

Now they do, and what a wonderful, magical, and beneficial thing that is.

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Talk soon

Damian

October 9, 2018

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The travels continue. The Lady Holly and I have made our way through five countries in the past twelve days. That fact still astounds this previously isolated Australian. Back home I could drive all day and only just make it to the other end of the state. But here I can, and did, do a day trip from Austria to Slovakia in less time than it takes me to get to work.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When last we spoke I was in Berlin, digging through its substrate to find hidden treasures. Much has happened since then, and I want to tell you all about it.

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We left Berlin by air, a shaky little budget airline, on a flight in which I read, Holly slept, and a giant sat beside me (or as close to a giant as a six foot something human can be–while I do sometimes wish I were taller I did not envy his height in this instance, my knees mostly fit under the chair in front, which is more than I can say for my giant seatmate). The turbulence and my fear of flying had me grabbing the armrest but the views we came upon, islands and oceans, also had me grabbing my camera (but also still the armrests). We were flying from Germany to Croatia, a short flight time-wise, but a large change in both climate and culture. We left six degrees plus windchill from a country full of beer and bread to land in the sunny Mediterranean where shorts, sunglasses, and cocktails were commonplace.

We were in Split, but we wouldn’t be here for long, spending just one night before a bus would take us across the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina. We will return to Split and so I’ll tell you more about that in just a moment, but, first, Mostar.

Mostar is one of the more important cities in the Herzegovina region, a city of old beauty and recent war. Its history is primarily one of conflict, as it sits between old dividing lines, nationalities, and religions. This conflict, however, mostly stems from the leaders, politicians, and the usual pack of arseholes who are too greedy for power and so ruin things for the rest of us. Its people, or at least the ones we met, primarily want one thing; peace. But we’ll circle back to that in just a moment.

Our first impression of Mostar was unfortunately not a good one. The budget bus line we were travelling with was running late, and so skipped a stop. Our stop. The one we had mapped a course to our accommodation from. Instead the bus dropped us off on the other side of town, where our lack of Bosnian and the drivers lack of English meant we really had no idea exactly where we were. The area was a little run down, and a beggar girl (the only one we saw the whole time it should be noted) greeted us as we stepped off the bus with an outstretched palm.  Like I said, not a great first impression, although, to be fair, few bus stations are. We were tired and lost and unsure of safety. We would later learn that we were never in any danger, Mostar is a remarkably safe city, especially for tourists who are very welcome there, but at this time we just wanted to make it to our accommodation as quickly as possible. There were two obstacles to that, however. The first was that, while I did have a sim card that provided me with 4G in a large number of countries across Europe, Bosnia and Herzegovina was not one of them. WiFi was also not available, at least at the bus station, and so any help from our phones was off the table. The second was that we didn’t have the right currency. Bosnia and Herzegovina is part of the European union, but are a later addition and so haven’t converted their currency to the Euro. Again, we would later learn that plenty of places did accept Euro, but for now we thought we might as well have monopoly money. We shook ourselves out of self pity and went and found an ATM. Now cashed up, the next thing was to find a taxi. We found one, but the guy took a phone call midway through Holly explaining where we were trying to go, and waved us away. Cool. So, it was onto the next one. Again, Holly explained where we were trying to get to, and after the driver conversed with a friend who must have known the roads better than he did, we were on our way. Things were looking up.

Accommodation in Mostar is largely guest houses, and ours did not disappoint. Our host, Nina, was kind and welcoming, with a delicious Eastern European accent that had me wanting to mimic it just to feel the taste of the words on my tongue. I did not, at least not while she was still there. The house was big, we had the entire first floor, which was a two bedroom house in itself, and wonderfully clean after the unfortunate experience with the apartment in Berlin. It was also laughably cheap, considering how nice it was and its great location; we were only a ten minute walk from old town. With our spirits well and truly lifted we decided to waste no time and go check it out.

The wounds and scabs of the recent Croat-Bosniak war were obvious as we walked, present in the form of dilapidated buildings, chipped and broken mortar, and the simple shells of what once were homes.

Around those though, was rebuilding. The war officially ended back in 1994 and while Mostar still hasn’t recovered to what they were previously it’s not for lack of trying. For all the bombings that happened during the war, and there were many, the old town mostly managed to stay clear of it. I say mostly for one very important reason. The bridge. The heart of old town, the heart of Mostar, and a proud feature for the locals, is the Stari Most, which translates, simply, to Old Bridge. They call it how it is in Mostar. They have good reason to be proud of this iconic feature because it really is quite lovely. 

Unfortunately, back in 1993, after standing for four hundred and twenty seven years, it came down. Military forces during the war destroyed it, after first destroying every other bridge in the city. The people were devastated, understandably, and it wasn’t until 2004, after the war had ended, that it was rebuilt, thanks in part to the financial aid of a number of neighbouring countries.

The bridge, however, is just the peak of the enchanting old town, where multi layer, bazaar-laden, cobbled streets are rich with people, riverfront seating, and the smells of spices and cooking. We were quickly caught by the charm of the place. It seemed like another world. Like a little pocket of medieval Arabia. A town from another era, which indeed it was. 

We wandered more than walked until our stomachs told us it was time to find out just what the source of the delicious smells were. Thanks to some of Holly’s research we already had a destination in mind, and, keen to try just about everything on their very tasty sounding menu, ordered the grill platter for two. What the restaurant neglected to mention was that this meal must have been meant for two ogres or bears or anything that can eat more than the average human because the pile of food that came out was certainly more than Holly and I could handle. We did our best, we really did, but it was a mountain of meat, with ponds of various dips and sauces, thick vegetation in the form of fresh vegetables and cheese, and at its base a plate of bread that could have, on its own, feed us both comfortably. It, and I, looked like this:

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I would not look like that by the time we were done. I would look bloated and full and like I’d just eaten my weight in meat, which indeed I had. The whole thing cost fifteen euro.

We spent the next few days exploring this broken and beautiful place. We had two guides in this time, one young, born towards the end of the conflict, hopeful and energetic and proud, the other older, having lived through the war, less energetic, with some bitterness, but still proud. This time would prove to be some of the most engaging of our entire trip. While we have visited countries that had experienced wars of their own, never had it been so recent, and, ironically, never had I known so little of it. This had happened in my lifetime. While I had happily been running around in grade two, these people had been running across streets to avoid sprays of bullets, hiding in shelters as bombs fell over head, protecting what they could from a war they didn’t want, didn’t agree with, but that they had found on their doorstep nonetheless.

The heart of the Croat-Bosniak war comes from three nationalist groups coming into power and then using this power to try and gain more power. They used past county lines and religious differences to try and gain territory and dispel people. Concentration camps were set up, families split, people killed; the usual laundry list of atrocities that come from war, and it had happened just over two decades ago on the land we were now walking. Our second guide, the older one, while explaining all this, mentioned in passing that he had been a soldier during it all, by necessity more than choice. He also explained that even though the war was over the effects were still being felt, and that many of his friends had turned to drugs and alcohol after a fragile peace was restored. He told us this not with anger or bitterness, just fact, the same way he pointed at a billboard for the upcoming elections and told us the man on it, the one looking for votes, was a war criminal who had avoided punishment. He spoke a lot that day, and for the most part Holly and I listened. As he talked I got the sense that he had avoided the fate of his friends because he talked, because he had people who listened, even if they were strangers from a foreign land who’d paid for the privilege. His tourism had turned to therapy. I hope he continues to talk. I hope that tourists continue to visit. I hope that war never finds them again, even if the roots of it are already trying to find ground.

There was one other thing, one beautiful and inspiring thing, that both guides told us. It has to do with the people that share Mostar’s borders. People from three lands, Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia, each with differing religions, Catholic, Muslim, and Christian Orthodox. These differences were the reasons the nationalists used to start their war, and the one they continue to try and use to re-flare it, but separatism is not something felt by the people of Mostar. Quite the opposite. “Unity is the spirit of Mostar” is what both guides told us. That was how they said it, the spirit of Mostar. They said it with pride, they said it with hope, as they explained how before the fighting all these differing parties had lived, worshiped, and even married together, how tolerance and understanding was common in a place that could have instead been a boiling pot.

To say I was humbled by Mostar and its people would be an understatement. We primarily went to Bosnia and Herzegovina for the lovely scenery and pools of turquoise water, and we definitely got that, but we got something else as well. A deeper understanding of the evils of mankind, yes, but also the kindness that often gets overshadowed by it. A kindness that should never be disregarded and never be forgotten.

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I was planning to write more on this leg of the trip but this feels like a nice stopping point, so I’ll save that for next time. Instead, I’ll leave you with some of the scenery I mentioned.

Talk soon,

Damian

The Words in the Walls

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Over the last week I’ve been writing a story on twitter with the help of friends and strangers.  You might remember this from the last time I did one, but basically it’s a collaborative effort where I provide the ongoing story and the aforementioned friends and strangers vote on what direction it goes.

I genuinely really enjoy doing these. One, because it means I’m ensuring I write every day, even if it is just in two hundred and eighty character bursts. And, two, because it also makes the writing process a lot less isolated. It’s amazing to me that the writers room for this little story was spread out over who knows how many spaces and countries. It truly shows the brighter side of the internet. So, to everyone who voted and followed along, thank you.

In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I’ve also started a new twitter page where I can continue these stories indefinitely.  Feel free to click the previous link to follow along and participate, the more voters the better as that will ensure the story doesn’t stop.

In the meantime you can also click the link below to read the twitter story; The Words in the Walls.

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Remember, we live in a time where at any point you can type ‘red panda’ into google then see a bunch of pictures of them, and if that’s not magic I don’t know what is.

Talk soon,

Damian

September 28, 2018

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I’m sitting in a semi-dilapidated lounge room. The wind is howling outside the window beside me, and there’s a small teddy bear in an aviator’s outfit looking at me from across the room. It’s been a weird twenty-four hours in Berlin.

Berlin is the last stop in our Germany tour. It started with the adorable mountain town of Mittenwald, after which we parted ways with my parents and headed north to Freiburg. Here we explored perhaps .000001 percent of the black forest (it’s not that we were lazy, it’s just very big) and soaked up some sun as we walked around the active university town. Then it was on to Bamberg where our accommodation was not only exceptional but came with free pasta (which Holly was very excited about) and a lolly jar (which I was very excited about). Bamberg proved to be a delight. Beautiful wood and plaster buildings sat astride canals, breweries were spotted everywhere, and an old and mostly empty castle sat on a hill overlooking it all. The days were hot and pleasant and full.

Then it was onto Berlin, where we had five whole days to explore the historic city. We arrived to heat. We stepped off the train, laden with backpacks, into thirty degree sun, our accommodation a four kilometer walk in front of us. We sweated our way there but were relieved to find the key where we were told it would be and gain access without too much trouble. Until we found the apartment occupied. Not with people, just things. Clutter. Rubbish. I was sure we had somehow entered the wrong place and that the real homeowner would come home any minute, confused as to why two Australian backpackers were standing in their living room. Holly checked the details, no, we were definitely in the right place, it just turned out the guy hadn’t felt the need to clean his apartment before renting it out. The place was a mess. Two big bags of recycling lay in the kitchen, as did cutlery and plates that looked like they’d been put away dirty. The bed had not been changed, the towels were questionable, and he had junk lying around everywhere. Then we opened the fridge. It was full of expired food and smelt like it, mostly thanks to one particularly old chunk of parmesan.

He will not be getting a good review.

We had two options; find a new place to stay or get cleaning. We got cleaning. Luckily the place had a washing machine, which we put every piece of linen through. We did a number of trips down to the bins on the ground floor to get rid of all the trash, including most of his fridge items. The kitchen got a full do over, and we moved the junk out of the way where we could. It wasn’t perfect, but it was livable, and at the very least felt a lot cleaner than when we’d entered. That night, to reward ourselves for our hard work, we cooked a delicious meal of chicken and salad and watched a movie about hobbits.

While we slept, winter descended. Well, actually autumn, but it felt like winter due to the sudden shift in temperature. It went from thirty degrees to six degrees overnight. I left the apartment the next morning in a t-shirt, not quite realising the extent the weather had changed. That did not last long.

We made our way towards Brandenburg Gate, where we were meeting up for a walking tour. As we walked I took in the city for the first time, without heat or backpacks weighing me down. Berlin is not a pretty city. Despite having such a long and intense history, little of it is depicted in its architecture like other European cities–this is of course due its aforementioned history, with over eighty percent of the city destroyed by bombings during World War Two. I found the surface of Berlin to look rather grey, its buildings large and boxy, with greenery lacking.

But that was just the surface. There is a depth to Berlin, one deep and stratified. Scratching the surface I realised that in fact Berlin’s history was present in its architecture. Unassuming lines of cobblestones that twisted and curled through the city’s streets were actually guidelines showing where the Berlin wall had once stood. The pedestrian crossing-light man, a funny little character in a hat known as Ampelmann, was also a relic from that time, one of the few vestiges of East Berlin that remains. Over here was a statue soldiers had once hidden behind during World War Two, bullet holes still evident in the marble. And over there a monster of a building, now tax offices, once part of the Nazi headquarters. And in that direction the location of Hitler’s bunker, now unadorned and unmaked, a car park to apartment buildings. Then there was the holocaust monument. Over two thousand blocks of grey concrete of differing sizes, some the size of my foot, others towering above me, a maze that demanded its occupants walk single file, an environment that forced me to think about what it stood for. It was ugly, yet beautiful, alluring and thought-provoking. It was Berlin.

We left the city center and walked outwards, towards a location some friends had recommended, and discovered another layer to Berlin. Multicultural streets, emphasis on the culture. Vietnam turned into Thailand, which then became little Turkey, except it wasn’t that little. It was all a bit of a shock to me, not because it was unwelcome, just because everywhere else we had been in Germany had been, well, Germanic. Gone were the biergartens and timber filled eateries. No steins or lederhosen existed here. It was like walking into a different country, a number of different countries, actually.

Then we made it to our location and found yet another layer to Berlin. The hipster scene. Admittedly we had already noticed this earlier as it was written large in the odd little cafes and bars, the style of the young (and not so young) locals, the shopfronts selling things from the quirky to the outright odd. But it was here, further out from the city that we reached its peak; literally and figuratively. We entered a fairly standard looking shopping mall, tiers of artificially lit stores towering above us, and, following the instructions of our friends, Erica and Brian, moved straight to the elevator, where we had been informed to go up to level 5, a parking lot, and then follow the stream of people. We went up and exited. We tailed, at a distance, two alternative looking gents round to the other side of the car park where a curved ramp led us up to a rooftop bar that practically screamed, smelled, and tasted of hipster. It was amazing. We ordered two beers, sat, and looked out at the oddity that is Berlin.

Drinks finished, we moved on to our final location for the day, yet another layer, an abandoned airfield, now enormous park, full of families, food trucks, and festivities. This weird and wonderful place had been recommended to us by a number of people but we were there, in particular, for one very special reason. Family/friends, Dom and Nikki, who had travelled with us earlier in the trip had also visited Berlin three weeks prior. Knowing we would be winding our way there after them I asked, mostly joking, that they leave something for us to find. They succeeded in this mission in a big big way. A few days prior Dom had sent us cryptic clues to solve which had led us to the airfield. Then we had received instructions and photos which would take us to the treasure. We made our way off the main runway down a small goat trail, and past three skinny white trees. Behind that was a small hill, with a number of large rocks at its base. After some discussion about which rock was our rock, we pulled one back to find a small zip-lock bag, a discoloured note and new best friend hidden inside. The note informed us that our new friend, a tiny bear in an aviators outfit, was called Flysie McFly’s-a-lot, and that he was in fact a protector, tasked with keeping us safe for the rest of our travels. I lost my mind. A treasure hunt was exciting enough but to know that this bear and note had been lying under a rock for three weeks, waiting for us, as who knows how many people passed it by, blew me away. I thought it was beyond cool, and still do, but then the weird coolness was about to increase. In the distance we noticed something in the sky. Many somethings. Kites, of all sizes, shapes, colours, and designs, moving in spirals and waves, a crowd of people underneath them. A kite flying festival had been scheduled for that day and we’d been lucky enough to stumble upon it. Flysie was very excited.

After being spellbound and shocked by the events of the day we made it back to our dirty-now-clean apartment, where I am writing these words to you.

We have spent just over twenty four hours here, but already I feel I can say this: Berlin is a place full of history and hipsters. A city older than some, and yet feels young. It is a city of layers and dirt, containing secrets and mysteries and hidden treasures.

Or at least, that was my impression of it. No doubt it looks a little different to everyone who visits.

I wonder how it would look to you.

Talk soon

Damian

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P.S. We also got Flysie a little drunk to make up for his weeks hiding under a rock…

September 15, 2018

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I am currently sitting on a dock in a town called Bregenz, in the very west of Austria. Across the water, not too far, as I can make out the individual buildings and towers, sits Germany.

It has been a big couple of weeks.

Travel wise, since last I wrote on here, the Lady Holly and I have moved on from Ireland, into Amsterdam, then Slovenia, then by train back to Vienna, and onwards into Austria, passing through Salzburg, Innsbruck, Bludenz and now here.

Life wise, outside of travel, my family has experienced a birth, a wedding, and a death.

So where to start, right? Let’s start with the birth.

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Holly and I were in Dublin, waiting at the airport, when a message came through informing me that my sister Angela’s water had broken while she and my brother-in-law, Ben, had been dining at a cafe. It was just past four in the morning for us, and the news instantly broke us from our sleep deprived exhaustion into excitement. We knew it was early days birth-wise, but still, our new nephew, Eli, was on his way. We boarded our short flight to Amsterdam hoping we wouldn’t have to wait too long before more news arrived.

The day in Amsterdam was excellent. Not only was the city a treat, full of people, history, canals, and the pervasive smell of weed, but the day was also spotted with updates about the birth. It started slow, as these things seem to do, and escalated with news both good and bad. Angela would need to be induced but both she and Eli were doing well.

Our day continued. We ate waffles, walked through the red light district, visited a coffee house, and through it all Angela was was experiencing the joy of contractions. After some trouble with taxis we made it back to our accommodation, ate a quick dinner and by the time we were ready for bed Angela and co were still going strong. Just before we went to sleep we were told that she would need an epidural.

Another four am start for us, another airport, and Angela was still in labour. Then came the news she’d feared most, despite another night of Ang working hard, Eli wasn’t down far enough for her to dilate to the required diameter. She was going to need a caesarean. It was time to board our plane.

Our flight took us from Amsterdam to Ljubljana, in Slovenia; our third airport in two days. Here we were meeting up with two close friends/family, Dom and Nikki, but had an hour or so to wait before they would arrive in a car that would take the four of us to Lake Bled for the next five days. During that time our phones binged with the blessed news that Eli had entered the world, all were fine, and then best of all, that first photo; wrinkly and pink and perfect, Eli, with his two exhausted but exultant parents around him.

He is now, and will forever be, our family.

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Next came the wedding, but before that we visited some of the most glorious countryside I have ever seen.

Slovenia is an unspoken gem of a country. It contains startlingly blue lakes that pair perfectly with their high reaching mountains and lush green forests. It has incredible gorges, magical goat branded beer, and, possibly the number one reason to visit, borek. I suggest going there with people who like to eat and drink, swim and sight-see, play card games and have nightly chats. That was my experience. I hope never to forget it.

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Then it was on to the wedding.

My twin brother, best friend, and womb mate, Jonathan, was days away from marrying his fiance’, best friend, and long distance love, Alexandra. That has been the biggest opponent for these two during their relationship, distance. While Austria and Australia may only be two letters different it turns out that doesn’t make it any easier for a citizen of one country to go live with a citizen of the other. As such Jonathan has been living and working in London for the duration of their three year relationship, where he was able to get a visa, and has flown back and forth to Vienna probably more times than I ever drove to my fiances’ house, back before she moved in with me. Long distance is a bitch, especially when you’re already half a world away from the rest of your family and friends, but amazingly and admirably, they have made it work, and soon, hopefully very soon, they will get to live in the same country, the same city, the same apartment. A reward they have well and truly earned.

But first they had to get married. While we four had been training it to Vienna, the rest of my family had likewise been converging towards the Austrian capital. Jonathan had gotten there a week earlier after finishing his last stint of work in London before the wedding. My parents had arrived a few days before us, and my brother, Matt, sister in law, Rose, and their two kids, Ella and Harry, had gotten in a day after them. Only Ang and Ben were unfortunately missing due to the aforementioned arrival of Eli.

The happy couple’s two families met across a feast, where a love of food (and Jon and Alex) bonded both sides quickly. The day after we prepped the wedding venue, a beautiful wood and stone building located on the vine covered hills just outside of Vienna. The following day was the wedding.

I won’t run through every detail of the day, as I think that would be more for my benefit than yours, but I will tell you it was the greatest joy watching the brother I’ve shared so much with marry the woman he loves, even if I didn’t understand a single word of the ceremony (it was in German). I’m not sure I expected to feel as full of love and happiness for them as I did. Not because I thought I would feel nothing, just because I had already seen how committed these two were to each other. But of course a wedding is so much more than just a ceremony. It’s something magic. It’s the saying of words, the signing of a document, a kiss, an applause, and somewhere amongst it all a new family is created.

I felt all of this. I saw the love on my brothers face, the unbridled happiness emanating from my new sister, and I saw a life ahead of them where no matter what else happened they would always have this, they would always have each other, and I knew my brother would be okay. More than okay. It made me so excited for what comes next.

The night that followed featured a smorgasbord of food (I made myself sick with eating), dancing till my feet hurt (including a flash mob routine to surprise the bride and groom), and hugging my brother (while consistently asking him where his wife was just to enjoy the novelty of mentioning that he had a wife).

It was an excellent day, which is fortunate, because we’ll be repeating it in a years time when they get remarried in Australia.

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The final part unfortunately features a death.

After parting ways with first Dom and Nikki, and then Jon and Alex, so they could head off on their honeymoon, Holly, myself, my parents, Matt, Rose, and the kids hopped on a train and headed for the Alps.

Western Austria has shown itself to be some simply stunning countryside. It didn’t take long after leaving Vienna before we headed into mountain country, the enormous entities rearing up all around us on every side, with us in the middle, marvelling at the scope and size of these land formations that are such a rarity back home.

Mountains never seem to stop impressing and amazing me. There is something so exhilarating about seeing something so big that you can’t take it all in with a single glance, or two, or three. My brain wants to devour every detail, but simply can’t, so instead I look at the patchwork features, the runnels of rivers, spots of vegetation–small green patches that are in reality swarths of giant evergreens–the shear slopes where almost unimaginable sized chunks of land fell away at some point in the distant past. All of it makes me feel so small and so large at the same time, both the giant and the fly, gets my heart racing, and yet my only real way of expressing these sentiments while I’m feeling them is to say, ‘Wow, would you look at that.’

Given all this, it’s a good thing I’m visiting Austria.

We headed first to Salzburg. The kids did a mighty job of walking through the quaint cobbled old town, then up to the castle on the hill. We visited Hallstatt, the epitome of beautiful lakeside Austrian towns, then drove on to Innsbruck, another gorgeous old mountain city that made me wonder if I shouldn’t just follow my brother, pack up my bags, and move to Austria. All this was spread over four days, at the end of which we kissed and hugged Matt, Rose, Ella, and Harry goodbye as they headed on and down into Croatia.

Holly, Mum, Dad, and I continued on, driving further into the mountains to a place called Bludenz. But just before that came the news that my nanna, my mothers mum, had had a stroke, fallen into a coma, and had been placed in palliative care.

It was sad, but the sadness was lessened by her age and senility, as my nanna had fallen deep into dementia in the last few years. Mostly I felt sad for my mum. She was understandably upset that she couldn’t be there during this time, or be there for her sister, who was missing my mums support. And of course for the loss that still remained. That she was about to lose that last part of her mum that she had, even if it was mostly her physical presence at this stage.

What came next was one of the nicest days I’ve ever shared with my parents. It was our second day in Bludenz and we’d decided to take the cable car up the mountain behind our accommodation where Holly had found out a number of walks existed. Muttersberg was the mountain and even just stepping off the cable car we knew we were onto something good. The view, the town below us surrounded by mountains, was amazing. It would prove to pall against what we were soon to visit.

We headed up, the first leg of our trek being a steep consistent uphill that led us quickly above the cable car hut, and further, through the dense vegetation on the mountainside. We pit-stopped and had a snack, still unable to believe the shear beauty that stretched out in front of us. We continued on, step by step making it further uphill, legs aching at the constant incline, until suddenly we breached a ridge and found ourselves at the top. The view there was like nothing I’d ever seen before. We stood on top of a mountain, and everywhere around us, reaching right to the horizon, where more and more mountains. If you remember how much I like mountains you can start to imagine just how astounded I was. How astounded we all were. This was something special. Something I’m happy to have been able to share with my parents and my partner, and just to have seen at all. We then did what anyone would do in that situation; we sat and ate lunch.

We made it back down the mountain, dined on pizza and beer, and the next day we drove to Bregenz. There our phones binged with the sad news that Nana had left the world, in a hospital room with two of her daughters and husband beside her.

It was a good thing all told, as she’d never wished to live with dementia, nor was she really herself anymore. While death is never without loss no matter at what time it comes, it’s important to remember that although we’ve lost the person, the life they lived still exists.

I was glad to be able to be there for my mum. To be able to give her a hug, make stupid jokes, and let her talk through what she was feeling. Being overseas these last couple of months means I’ve missed out on things back home, but I’m glad I was able to be there for this.

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I’m now in Mittenwald, Germany, sitting in the shadow of yet another stunning mountain, a grapefruit radler in front of me.

In just over three weeks I’ve met my new nephew through photos and video chat, teared up as my brother said ‘I do” in German, and lost the first of my four grandparents.

Even when I think I’ve put my life on pause, life continues on.

I’m glad it does.

Talk soon,

Damian

 

August 19, 2018

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Words written for the year: 98,482

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At the moment of writing I am sitting in a low lit pub, heavily wooded, founded back in eighteen something something, and festooned with Guinness paraphernalia. There is a beer in front of me, it is black and creamy, and whenever I take a drink it adds a second mustache on top of my home grown one. Across from me sits the Lady Holly, she is looking lovely

This is a scene we have repeated many times in the past week as we’ve road tripped across the western edge of Ireland, and I have yet to grow sick of it. Far from. Were it not for the cost and the effect all the beer is no doubt having on heart and liver, I feel like I could continue this trend forever.

We’ve had many pleasant days in this wet and green country, but I’d like to tell you about just one as I think it epitomises the rest of them. The day in question was last Thursday.

We woke in the comfortable AirBnB we had rented, and I started the day by excitedly checking my phone for news of the imminent birth of my nephew. All was silent on the Eli front, so I got up and started getting ready for the day we had planned from the advice of previous tenants of our room, collected in a small book left by the owners of the house.

We were in Killarney, which has won itself the spot as my favourite place in Ireland. It had stiff competition, as all the places we’ve visited had either fine pubs or beautiful nature. Killarney, however, has both. They tag themselves as ‘the town in the park’, the park being The Killarney National Park; an impressive expanse of woodland that contains lakes, mountain peaks, waterfalls, red deer, and, for two days, two Australians named Holly and Damian. The park is large, one hundred and three square kilometers, and circles around one third of the town, giving Killarney a perpetual hug. Then there’s the town itself, which is full of character and overflowing with pubs. Over fifty in total, each one full of beer, rich food, and, come the night, traditional Irish music. But we’ll get to that.

We left the house and picked up a lazy man’s breakfast of a pre-packed sandwich at the nearby Tesco, and then traveled the short seven kilometers to the park and Muckross House; an old Tudor-style mansion that forms the heart of the national park. After doing a quick lap of the house we left it to the busloads of incoming tourists and walked further into the park, towards Torc waterfall.

The day was surprisingly sunny. We had already learnt by then that any weather in Ireland is only ever temporary, and so, counting the current sun as good fortune we hurried on, marvelling at the twisted trees by the cold blue lake before edging into the lush wet forest.

It didn’t take long before our now well worn-in boots traversed the trail to the waterfall. It was heavy with water, cascading down into the clear river and mossy rocks below. The full trees sheltered us from the now light rain, with edges of sunlight already returning. It was a fairy tale scene, one that made me look around for the nymphs and pixies that I knew had to be hiding somewhere. After a poorly taken selfie we continued on, walking a trail uphill. We climbed up above the lake, the kilometers falling away behind us. We finished the trail but found we wanted to walk some more and so entered another feature of the park; a route that took you through the workings of a traditional farm. It was spotted with old farmsteads, saddle-makers, and a schoolyard–but easily the best part was the animals. Pigs and donkeys and Irish wolfhounds and goats, all happy to receive a scratch around the ears and a pat on their bottom.

It was now close to one o’clock and having had our nature craving sated headed into town for a drink. We took our pick of one of the local pubs and settled in, me with my laptop to work on a story, and Holly with a book. A few hours and drinks later (and a lot of “fooking insert-word-here” from the locals) we decided we needed some fresh air and so, braced against the now cold, headed towards the local cathedral. We saw some green behind it and followed the footpath in, only to realise it was yet another entrance to the national park. We saw signs towards Ross Castle. Carefree and with nothing else pressing, decided it must again be the walking part of our walk/drink cycle, as so started moving. It was slow movement thanks to routinely standing under trees to wait out the latest batch of five-minute rain, but pleasant, warmed by the romance of the moment and the beer in our bellies.

A quick walk through the castle was followed by deer spotting and the fervent wish that a badger (magical or otherwise) would join us on our walk. None did and we made it back to town, taking our total kilometers walked for the day up to twenty one. We took up residence in another pub to while the evening away before hopping to a restaurant for dinner, and then from there to yet another pub called Courtney’s to await the night’s music.

We had passed Courtney’s the night before, drawn in by the sound of it’s resident band only to find many others had already followed the lure and that there was no seating available. We had been determined not to make the same mistake twice, and so got in early to score the best seats in the house. It was worth it. The band wasn’t really a band, but rather one guitarist who had invited any available friends to come jam with him. At first it was him and an accordion player. They belted out two toe tapping tracks, both exceptionally proficient at their chosen instrument. Then a third fellow joined them. I eyed his instrument case keenly, hoping with everything I had that there was a fiddle inside. There was. The next song started, rich, and fun, and improvised. Then a fourth man pulled up a seat and took out an instrument that I had never seen before and that I can best describe as somewhere between bagpipes and a clarinet. I’ve since learned the instrument are called Uileann pipes, and can tell you they were a treat to watch played. With all the avengers assembled the music rose to even greater heights that left me grinning like a pleased pug. The atmosphere was perfect. The pub, older than my great great grandmother, was full with tourists and locals alike, the candlelight giving the space an almost ethereal glow. I had a drink in front of me, Holly beside me, and music swirling around us both like water in a river.

The next day Holly wrote about the music of Courtney’s in the book at our AirBnB and I couldn’t help but wonder who would come after us, who would read her words and retrace our steps to discover the sights and sounds of this soul warming Irish town. I hope they enjoy it as much as we did.

Talk soon,

Damian